Accidental Style Icon: Aspeth Montgomery, The Popular Girl From The 2005 Novel 'Prep'
Photo via Goodreads.
If you came of age in the early aughts, I don't need to describe Curtis Sittenfeld's novel Prep to you, because you remember it vividly: the pink-and-green ribbon belt on the cover, protagonist Lee Fiora's uncertain stumble toward adulthood at an ultra-elite East Coast boarding school, and possibly the senior boys' fucked-up game of "fish or cheese" (raise your hand if this scarred you for life!)
As a weird girl attending a fancy school, I identified strongly with Lee, but I didn't want to; like Lee herself, I aspired to see flashes of myself in the popular girls described on Sittenfeld's pages, hungrily devouring her description of boarding-school wealth for clues as to how I should comport myself (and really, nobody has illustrated teen debauchery and malfeasance so well since "Popular Girls," Karen Shepard's 2001 short story for the Atlantic. Gossip Girl wishes it was this keenly observed!)
Among all the girls on Sittenfeld's pages, one reigned supreme: Aspeth Montgomery, Lee's chief tormentor and ruler of her high-school class, who hails from Greenwich, Connecticut, collects acolytes like Lee's try-hard roommate Dede with ease, bewitches boys (Lee's crush in particular) , and has the long, shiny blonde hair that every reluctant brunette secretly dreams of. Aspeth has "the longest legs of any girl in our class, fantastic legs," and she knows how to work them; knows how to work all her advantages, in fact, which are legion.
When we first meet Aspeth, she's inveighing against "whoever is leaving pubic hair in the sink" in her and Lee's dorm bathroom, blithely unaware that the hairs are actually from the head of a black classmate; in other words, she absolutely sucks. This isn't an essay about how Aspeth is actually good, or how we need to give rich, popular white girls from Connecticut a chance — we don't. But for a brief moment in time, somewhere in the early 2000s, their power was unrivaled, and their style was unequaled.
Prep is set in the '80s or '90s, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from Lee's ruminations on Aspeth's clothes: "Pastel button-down shirts and khaki skirts and white or navy espadrilles." Sure, it might sound a little dated, but the rich, mean girls I went to school with were still dressing like this as of 2004, and Facebook indicates that they haven't stopped. True preppy-chic exists outside of time, and therefore, it is eternal, not subject to the vagaries of trends in the way that less WASPily elegant ways of dressing are.
The moment that really makes Aspeth a style icon, though, is a scene that takes place about halfway through the novel, when Aspeth has deigned to let Lee cut her hair. Lee goes to visit Aspeth's dorm room, and finds the following:
"She was wearing a T-shirt, a red cardigan sweater with tiny, pearly star-shaped buttons, underwear, and no pants. Her long blond hair was wet, with grooves running along her scalp where she'd combed it back. She made a face at me, a kind of joking-apologetic face, then darted to the corner to turn down the stereo, leaving me an unobstructed view of her golden haunches: thin, smooth thighs, and the twin scoops of her ass encased in—fleetingly, this surprised me, and then it made complete sense, how the choice was both classic and sexy—white cotton underpants. The music on the stereo was the Rolling Stones, and it occurred to me that Aspeth was the kind of girl about whom rock songs were written. How could Dede bear to be around her? Even though it was just the two of us, I felt like her chaperone."
Leaving aside the old-school anachronisms (stereos, lol), this description of Aspeth's careless, cruel appeal feels achingly prescient even today. Like Daisy Buchanan before her, Aspeth Montgomery gets to exist in a sphere of beauty, wealth and charm that bears almost no relationship to the world around her, a sphere that can only really exist in a rarefied environment like a Long Island mansion or an East Coast boarding school; although it doesn't translate to the real world, I can testify firsthand that the allure of the girls who rule these worlds can be intoxicating. The popular girl doesn't care if you see her in her underwear; why would she care? She moves freely through her dorm room and through her charmed little world, pearl-clad body undulating slightly to the Rolling Stones (or Vampire Weekend, or Taylor Swift, depending on the era), knowing you're transfixed.
Another style-icon moment comes as Aspeth exits her dorm room, and Lee takes a look around at the space in which Aspeth lives:
There were computers on both desks, and two stereos, and on all the surfaces there were notebooks and textbooks and catalogs and a combination of cheap and expensive toiletries; a tall white plastic container of hand lotion, some talcum powder, several gold tubes of lipstick, mouthwash, a bottle of Chanel (I had never seen Chanel in real life), a carton of generic band-aids, and on the floor in front of the door there was a gray peacoat with satin lining, which Aspeth stepped on—stepped on, with her shoe—as we exited the room. Also, she left on the lights, Christmas and otherwise, as well as the music.
The gray peacoat with satin lining! I think about this a lot, to borrow a phrase. To be Aspeth Montgomery, the most popular girl in school, is to step carelessly on your privilege, to grind it into the dust with your heel, knowing there will always be more where that came from. What popular girl worth her salt worries about the electricity costs or ecological footprint of leaving the Rolling Stones blaring as she leaves her room?
Prep's epilogue makes it clear, in the end, just what happens to popular girls; ten years after high-school graduation, "Aspeth Montgomery lives in New York, and she owns an interior design boutique, which always disappoints me a little to think about—it just seems so insignificant." Owned! Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter what Aspeth's life is like after high school; she, and perhaps all popular girls, exist to serve a moment, to inhabit it fully and precisely. Prep looks different now, thank God, and Aspeth and her Greenwich-born ilk no longer rule the cultural moment, but neither can their influence be fully excised from the culture, or from our memories.
To Lee, Aspeth will always be the girl who stepped on the gray peacoat's satin lining, merrily tripping down the dorm hallway on her way to somewhere cool; if we were honest, wouldn't we all admit to having our own high school-era popular girls, our greatest enemies and first crushes, who live similarly rent-free in our heads?